I strongly believe that NHL general managers should be pessimistic when they’re building their rosters. After the jump, I’ll explain why, as well as what taking that approach would mean for the Oilers’ offseason.
When I write here about pessimism, I’m not talking about the philosophic school of thought (I know we have a few highly educated readers that would be bound to point this out to me) but rather the common definition: placing an emphasis on negative, rather than positive outcomes.
That’s not to say a general manager should sound pessimistic. Steve Tambellini shouldn’t be saying things like ‘Nikolai Khabibulin’s NHL career is over’ or ‘Ryan Whitney might never be healthy again’ or ‘Eric Belanger may never regain his form.’ Relentless optimism in word is absolutely the right approach.
It is in deeds where a manager should display a pessimistic attitude.
In net, the Oilers have a good young goaltender in Devan Dubnyk, as well as a veteran goalie with a long and distinguished career in Nikolai Khabibulin. Looking at comparable players, we know that Dubnyk could continue his excellent play (likely) or implode (less likely, but still possible). Based on Khabibulin’s red-hot start to 2011-12, he could be competent with a light workload (possible) but he might get injured or just play miserable hockey (likely). An optimistic manager would keep both, banking on the best possible outcome. A pessimistic manager would bank on Khabibulin being finished and be open to the possibility of Dubnyk struggling; he’d dump the veteran and bring in another goalie who could play a lot of games if needed.
On the blue line, the Oilers have a few (relatively) sure things. Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry and Nick Schultz are all good players who seem likely to repeat what they did last season. Ryan Whitney, hobbled by serious injury, is a major question mark. Andy Sutton is near the end of his career, and it’s certainly possible his performance will drop off. Corey Potter was an AHL’er for a long time and toward the end of the year he played like it. Theo Peckham, Colten Teubert and Cam Barker all looked in 2011-12 like guys who shouldn’t be NHL regulars.
An optimist would bank on the first three, expect Ryan Whitney to be able to play a top-four role, and count on Sutton, Potter and Peckham to offer stable depth. A real optimist might trade on of the latter three and bank on Teubert to be NHL-ready in the fall. A pessimist would not count on Ryan Whitney as a top-four defenseman, and would recognize that the trio of Sutton, Potter and Peckham is not a group to be relied on. He would probably have Potter on the NHL bubble, with the possibility but not certainty of making the team out of camp. He’d ideally see Sutton in a reserve role, the seventh defenseman who alternates in and out of the lineup (given Sutton’s suspension history probably not a bad idea anyway). He might deal Peckham at the draft. Then he’d add two NHL defenders, one of them a top-four option.
The Oilers are in a state of flux up front, with young players pushing for more responsibility and old players struggling to hang on to key jobs. Major question marks include Ryan Smyth (age, fading performance down the stretch), Ales Hemsky (bad season in 2011-12), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (will he keep building on a great rookie season, or struggle a little in year two), Eric Belanger (players his age with seasons like his last can sometimes be in irreversible decline) and Jordan Eberle (he’ll be good, but can he repeat a season where a lot of things went perfectly).
The optimist assumes advancement for Nugent-Hopkins, stability (or possibly a 40-goal season) for Eberle, a return to form for Belanger and Hemsky, and at least a competent year from Smyth. An even sunnier outlook might also plan for advancements from Taylor Hall and Sam Gagner, and third-line caliber performances from Ryan Jones and Ben Eager.
Any of those things might happen. All of them happening would be the stars aligning. A pessimist would look at the young players and, knowing that development is not always linear, allow for the possibility of a year without significant gains for Nugent-Hopkins, and possibly even slight regression for Jordan Eberle (there are tons of examples of this sort of thing, with one of them being Ryan Smyth, who scored a still career-high 39 goals at 20 and then failed to pick up even 39 points for the following two seasons). He wouldn’t count on Belanger to play above the fourth line, wouldn’t count on Hemsky being healthy, and wouldn’t lean on Ryan Smyth in a tough-minutes role.
The Oilers’ approach for years now has been largley optimistic. Last summer, they bet that Ryan Whitney wouldn’t miss a beat, despite serious injury questions. They bet that Minnesota Wild castoff Cam Barker could play top-four minutes if needed. They’ve continued to bet on Nikolai Khabibulin, and seem likely to do the same this year. At the deadline, they bet that Jeff Petry was ready to replace Tom Gilbert. Not all of their moves were bad; for example, they went too long on both Eager and Belanger but the idea of shoring up the forward corps was a good one. The main issue is that the club still tends to bet on positive outcomes.
The problem with betting on positive outcomes is that in the real world things go wrong. If things go right for the optimist, than everything’s okay. If some things go right and some things go wrong, there’s trouble. If a lot of things go wrong, the Oilers announce a full-blown rebuild at the trade deadline.
Building in flexibility for negative outcomes (to the extent possible – the salary cap and waiver rules mean that it’s impossible to be completely prepared) leads to a stronger team. If things go right, the team finds itself with surplus assets or having a great year; it’s a nice place to be. If there’s a mixture of good and bad surprises, the flexibility means the team can handle it. If a lot goes wrong, things might get bad, but probably not nuclear meltdown bad.